Mozambique's long and bitter struggle against climate and conflict

Given how dire and complex the situation is, funds alone aren't enough to rebuild the country's north

A Rwandan soldier walks in front of a burned truck near Palma, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique last September. AFP

In January, my colleagues and I at MSF, a medical humanitarian organisation, were struck by the reality of Cabo Delgado, a province in the north of Mozambique, which has been affected by a conflict since 2017. The father of Matilde, one of our colleagues, was beheaded in an attack while working the land in a village in northern Macomia, a city in the province. Matilde and her family had the heartbreaking and dangerous task of collecting his remains so they could bury him with dignity.

A week later, the son of another colleague, Salvador, died of diarrhoea in Cuamba, a city in Niassa Province. He was only 20 months old. The conditions of the health centres are extremely poor and accessing services is often a nightmare. The lack of care for civilians in Cabo Delgado is shocking, as is their vulnerability to the atrocities of the ongoing conflict.

After more than 3,500 deaths, and the emergence of hundreds of thousands of displaced people, the war drags on. Since the end of January, about 15,000 people have been forcibly displaced only in the district of Meluco and many others have faced the same fate in different areas of the province; hundreds of houses have been burned to the ground, crops stolen and we still do not know the exact number of people killed. Bodies are counted by the dozens.

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The situation could be different if the designed for Cabo Delgado were also aimed at building strong communities

People arrive empty-handed after several days without eating, and our teams often have to provide something as basic as T-shirts and flip-flops, as well as other essential goods and food rations, at transit points where people arrive. These are the ones who reach a safer area, but others remain for long periods hidden in the undergrowth. We have seen people who spent up to one year living in the forest surviving with the little they could find there such as leaves, fruits or an animal they hunted.

The day-to-day reality in Cabo Delgado shows that the crisis is far from over. In this region, the massive investment in gas and the community's desperate and helpless attempts to improve their situation come up against an absent state and frequent attacks by armed groups.

It is an issue that is not going to disappear overnight. This war has left 15,000 square kilometres in six districts of Cabo Delgado, once vibrant and animated, completely uninhabited. An expanse of territory, which is bigger than Jamaica or Gambia, where today no one lives, sows, harvests or fishes. Armed groups are, as people say here, "infernizando" (tormenting) communities. People are terrified and, from our own experience, it only takes the sound of a few gunshots or other indications of looming insecurity to empty an entire town in a matter of minutes.

People here are astonishingly resilient. They rebuild their homes at least a couple of times a year, most of them have been displaced multiple times. If it is not the war, extreme climate events force them from their homes. Up to eight tropical storms are expected this cyclone season. The first two ones, hitting the country in January and March, wreaked havoc in Nampula Province, south of Cabo Delgado. Facing this threat, people are vigilant, but remain unprotected.

An aerial view taken in February 2021 shows temporary houses in the Napala Agrarian Centre of Metuge District, Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. AFP

Most families cannot even raise enough money to take a bus. Many young children have limited access to food and have never been to school, while 67 per cent of mothers have never had the opportunity to learn to read or write. A subsistence economy, where people work only to try and eat that day, is the norm. Many young people do not have jobs or education, leaving them vulnerable to recruitment into armed groups.

Is it a question of there being enough funds to solve the situation? There has been more than $760 million allocated by international institutions to Mozambique's North Integrated Development Agency, a government recovery fund created in 2020. Companies have also allocated funds to thousands of families living around the Afungi liquefied natural gas plant, near Palma, which was hit by violence in March 2021, and other neighbouring districts. The EU is in talks with the Mozambican government regarding further aid and co-operation. However, humanitarian aid funds, those dedicated specifically to addressing emergency needs, are much more modest. They are mostly limited to feeding people who have neither land nor work and fundamentally focused on the more stable areas.

But it is not only a matter of money; the situation could be different if the economic and political projects designed for Cabo Delgado were also aimed at building strong communities with a future. This is, unfortunately, not the case. And so, if the marginalisation of people does not stop, communities will remain insecure and vulnerable and the conflict will continue to cause immense suffering.

Published: April 14, 2022, 4:00 AM
Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa

Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa

Aitor Zabalgogeazkoa is the head of MSF's emergency unit and was previously co-ordinator in Mozambique